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State of the City Address to the Portage Rotary Club

Gary P. Brown, Mayor

Portage, Michigan

February 4, 1998

This is the first opportunity I have had to deliver a State of the City address. I am very pleased to be giving this speech to the Portage Rotary Club. A great many of you have a long history of interest and involvement in Portage. All of you have shown your commitment to Portage by your willingness to support the many Rotary projects that directly affect Portage and its young people specifically.

The state of our city is good. In fact, you might even say it has never been better. Even with the formidable problems we face, looking past these for a moment, Portage has continued to grow and offer a quality of life second to none in the area.

The Portage population is estimated at 43,700. This is an increase of 6.5% since 1990. Portage has the largest State Equalized Value (SEV) in the county. At $1.29 billion, we have an SEV larger than Battle Creek.

Our tax rate when compared to 24 cities of 20,000 or more population in Michigan is the 8th lowest.

In fiscal year 1996/97, our city issued 590 permits for new housing. Permits for commercial and industrial development totaled 85. The combined dollar value of these permits was $63.47 million.

Portage continues to be a regional shopping center. The success of this regional attraction can be seen in the number of cars traveling on South Westnedge Avenue on a daily basis. In an average day, 40,960 cars will use South Westnedge and at peek times, over 55,000.

We continue to diversify our tax base. While residential living still represents 50% of our tax base, we have been working hard to attract business and industry to Portage. Maintaining a productive balance between residential, business and industrial growth is essential to the quality of life we enjoy in Portage.

We continue as a city to take an active part in intergovernmental cooperation.

Mayor Jones, Pat DiGiovanni, Michael Stampfler, and I have been meeting on a regular basis. The Kalamazoo Commission and the Portage City Council held a get acquainted session December 11, 1997.

Michael Stampfler was a major contributor to the successful District Court Consolidation process.

Portage is an active participant in the on­going discussions in the Council of Governments (COG) on 911 Central Dispatch consolidation, county­wide planning and zoning, and economic development.

The City of Portage, with the Portage Public Schools, has passed the necessary resolutions to establish a District Library. The creation of the new District Library will be on the June School election ballot.

"Unto whom so ever much is given, of him shall be much required" Luke 12:48

To some, we may represent the money tree. Our good fortune has been more than luck, however. Our good fortune comes from strong, innovative management and Councils willing to accept change. We have led the way in privatizing many of our city operations. We have been willing to go to the voters for money for needed services, and our citizens have responded favorably.

The Kalamazoo community has experienced major changes during 1997. The fallout from the announcements made by Pharmacia & Upjohn and First of America is not clear yet. What is clear is that these events will have a profound effect on Portage, a profound effect on the county.

Each and every day, we seem to be waiting for the next announcement. How many will be moving out? How many will be moving in? Who might be the next company to merge or move? Even with the good news, such as State Farm coming to town and expansions of other businesses, we still seem to be waiting for the next announcement.

It is interesting to look back on the events of this last year. If we were honest, we saw them coming, but elected not to react. In my review of materials for this speech, I went back to speeches given by Tim Light, Ley Smith and Randy Eberts to the Kalamazoo Rotary Club in the early months of last year. Each of their speeches given before we had any idea that Pharmacia & Upjohn would move its headquarters to New Jersey, and before we had any idea that First of America would join with National City Corp.

Ley Smith, then Executive Vice President of P & U. demonstrated clearly to all of us present the current economic state of affairs in Kalamazoo County. The data he used, put together with the help of the Upjohn Institute, was substantially the same forecast given to us just a couple of weeks ago by David Rusk. Ley pointed out the peril of maintaining the status quo. He indicated that we need a shared vision, a shared vision of where we want to be and how to get there. Remember, this was in April of 1997.

In an even earlier speech to the Kalamazoo Rotary Club, Dr. Tim Light, Vice President at Western Michigan University, pointed out that to be an economic success you must be a world class city. A city that sees itself in a broader context, not as an insular city, but as one that is collaborative, not only by opening connections with the world but also by forming partnerships locally.

Randy Eberts, Executive Director of the W.E. Upjohn Institute, cited in his speech to the Kalamazoo Rotary Club the four factors that were important to the attraction and retention of businesses and people. They were ­­ quality of the labor force, education, business connections, and transportation. Remember, this was in May of 1997.

Just a couple of weeks ago we had yet another opportunity to hear what by now should be a very familiar story when David Rusk and James Gollub, noted urbanologists came to town.

You know, it was deja vu all over again.

In their presentations, David Rusk and James Gollub gave example after example demonstrating the need for cooperation, collaboration, and consolidation.

The sad thing about all this is that we might just be preaching to the choir, the usual cast of characters. To some Rusk's and Gollup's message, the same one we have heard over and over last year, may have been news. They have all been saying that we, and this includes Kalamazoo, need to be doing things differently if we, and I again include Kalamazoo, are to grow and prosper. These recent speeches have only focused new light on a message that was stated eight years ago.

In 1991 the City of Portage published its Portage 2020 Report. In that report, in the very beginning of that report, in the Vision of the Future statement, we stated ­­ "In 2020 the City of Portage will be a world class community, where the needs of its diverse population will be met through a coordinated effort of city, county and regional services."

It went on to say, "Through comprehensive regional economic development efforts, the City will establish more commercial and industrial establishments.

I have no way of knowing, but have similar statements been included in vision statements by other governmental units in our county? That is a good question, because if there have been, little, if anything, has been done to make those statements come to life. "I told you so" could be the cry of some at this point.

The point is, I suggest, that we must move past talking about what we should have done. History is important and we can learn from our experience, but we must put that behind us and move forward from this point. Today must be the beginning!

As I said in the beginning of my speech, Portage is doing very well for now, but can and will that continue? With a population of 43,700 and the largest SEV in the region, it is time for Portage and its leadership to take a much more proactive role in the county.

Since the announcements last year, our City Manager Michael Stampfler has been an active participant in discussions with a group called Fresh Start (this is a group that evolved out of the efforts to keep P & U headquarters here in town).

With the full support of the Portage City Council, Michael has been exploring many ideas and options that could have a far reaching effect on our communities. In fact, Michael Stampfler has advanced many of the most innovative options we might explore to achieve a greater advantage in economic development for Kalamazoo County.

It was Michael's office that, in a matter of days after the announcements of P & U and FOA, had detailed reports on their far reaching effects on not just Portage and Kalamazoo, but the county. These reports and the excellent data that they contained continue to be used to assess the impact on our community of both announcements. In the first few days following these events, no other governmental body or community group stepped up to offer the same appraisal. In fact, I still don't know of another report offering an appraisals of the news.

I must emphasis, Michael's work with the Fresh Start Group has the Portage City Council's full support. I know many have said that what we are doing is somehow self serving. Well, it is. It is from the standpoint that we, the Council, all understand that Kalamazoo's stability supports our prosperity.

I believe that our Council understands the need to explore greater cooperation, collaboration, and yes, even consolidation, in order to achieve an economic advantage and maintain a high level quality of life in our community.

I have taken the initiative to suggest to Mayor Jones of Kalamazoo that we establish a Metropolitan Council of Governments. Made up initially by the cities of Kalamazoo and Portage, The Metro Council would grow to include the Townships of Kalamazoo, Oshtemo, Texas, Pavilion, and Comstock, and the City of Parchment. These municipalities represent the core municipalities of the county.

It is, after all, these municipalities that will need to come together to solve such issues as metro transportation, health and human services, affordable housing, and economic development.

I am not suggesting that the Metro Council replace the Council of Governments (COG). COG has a role to play in the continued growth of our county and region.

I am suggesting, however, that the core metropolitan area must deal with problems that are unique to the area of the county in which the majority of the population lives.

I would also like to offer the following challenges as a means of building a sense of a larger community:

1) I challenge the Kalamazoo County Chamber of Commerce and the Portage Chamber of Commerce to come together. I challenge them, as Rusk put it, to "get out of their small boxes."

2) I challenge the City of Kalamazoo to use the City of Portage as a model and privatize more services and in doing so reduce real costs of government.

3) I challenge the City of Kalamazoo Commission to operate more like a City Manager/Commission form of government. Allow the manager to manage. Stay out of the day­to­day operation of the city. Set the vision for the future of the city of Kalamazoo and help all of us set a vision of the future for the metropolitan area and the county. Make your decisions based on the best interest of the whole city and our larger community.

4) I challenge the Kalamazoo Commission to work with Western Michigan University to establish a research and business park. Dr. Haenicke has offered a third time to work with the city. It is time for the city to do everything in its power to see the park become a reality.

5) I challenge the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Township, Parchment, and Comstock to begin discussions on combined police and fire services.

6) I challenge the Kalamazoo and Portage Schools to establish a definitive way in which they can work with the metropolitan governments on economic development.

7) I challenge the Kalamazoo Gazette to stop running HOME TOWN papers and encourage the people of our community and region to think as one large community. After all, we are more than the City of Kalamazoo. We are more than a downtown. We have more to offer as a community than separate cities, towns, villages, or townships. If the Gazette is truly a regional newspaper, (80% of the readership is outside the city of Kalamazoo) it must have an editorial view beyond a few blocks from where it is published.

8) I challenge the City of Portage to take a leadership role in analyzing and discussing collaborative and consolidated ways of providing better services to the to the people of our community. There are no areas of cooperation that should be excluded from discussion.

9) I challenge all of us to come together and develop a vision for what we ­­ the community we ­­ want to be.

10) I challenge all of you here today to become a part of change. I challenge all of you to consider ways you can provide leadership in the uncertain months and years ahead.

Too many people have a vested interest in the status quo. I risk a lot just offering these challenges. In the next few years, the struggle for our communities viability will be hard enough, even under the best circumstances. If we are a fragmented community we will be at a profound disadvantage.

There is no one formula for success, but there is a recipe for failure ­­ the absence of leadership.

Power rests everywhere within our community ­­ in the corporate board rooms, in neighborhoods, community organizations, in city commissions and councils, and in the hands of city managers and township supervisors.

When there is strong leadership with clear ideas and directions, we can move forward together.

When we become enmeshed in rivalries and personal politics, we have trouble living up to our potential. We even have Double seeing what our potential might be.

If we ­­ not just Portage but our larger community -- are to remain competitive in attracting and expanding businesses, strengthening our public schools, drawing middle­class residents back to core city neighborhoods, and the list can go on, we must find leaders who can be relied upon to help us coalesce around a coherent vision of where we are going.

Such leadership exists in our community ­­ the only question is whether they will be allowed to emerge.